Some of Pattaya’s gay bars are by no means in intensive care yet

A transvestite performer sings heartily at Jomtien’s The Venue.

You won’t hear much in Pattaya about how the Stonewall Inn riots of 1969 gave rise to the gay civil rights movement across the globe. The gay scene here is mercurial: selling alcohol, providing trendy cabaret shows and offering male eye candy to overseas visitors. After all, the local radio is still calling the Thai resort Fun City.

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The pesky virus and the government ban on foreign tourists have certainly resulted in a huge drop in pink-pound spending and a 30 percent closure of businesses across the board. But the resort still offers around 25 gay leisure spots situated in three areas. Boyztown is downtown and still offers classy shows and upmarket go-go bars, but even its most ardent fans will admit it has lost ground commercially in recent years in spite of frequent face-lifts. Ten minutes walk away is Sunee Plaza, but most of its bars and clubs have been replaced by padlocks and for rent notices. Sunee never recovered a decade ago from frequent police raids to expose lewd shows and teen prostitution. That’s all in the past.

All bars in Jomtien Complex are open to the street.

The new gay mecca is Jomtien Complex, sometimes marketed as Jomtien’s Walking Street which is odd as the original version in Pattaya is exclusively heterosexual in tone. The two streets of open gay bars (no clubs with security doormen and no male pole dancers), popular restaurants such as Yupins, health studios (massage parlors to you and me) and a lively cabaret show at The Venue still collectively attract 200 customers on a good night. “It’s not wonderful cash-wise,” confides one Thai bar owner, “but people are still coming here to chat and to watch the passing human parade over a drink.”

Perhaps accidentally, the Jomtien Complex has hit on a successful formula. Everybody seems to be welcome. Guys in wheelchairs are given first class treatment by staff to settle in. There’s no discrimination against transgenders, lesbians, bisexuals or straights. If a guy wants to sit down with his wife or girlfriend, nobody bats an eyelid. Only boys under 18 are strictly off-limits as staff or as freelancers. That’s all in the past too.

Local drag queen and cabaret star Pandora Boxx (probably not her real name) explains, “The key to the Complex is that it’s truly international and there’s always something new going on: a birthday party here or an anniversary get-together over there with everyone welcome. Gays need their queer space to mix and relax more than ever in the coronavirus age.” She adds that the competition between bars, never antagonistic in any case, keeps prices low.

It is hard to predict the future, particularly as it hasn’t happened yet. The commercial gay scene worldwide was in decline long before anyone had heard of Covid-19. Geo-locating smartphone dating and hookup apps such as Grindr and Romeo bear some of the responsibility. But Pandora says that’s only half the story. “Many gay Westerners stopped coming to Thailand 10 or even 15 years ago when eastern Europe opened up to cheap travel. Then she adds, somewhat obscurely, “There’s a lot of fresh meat in Czechoslovakia.” One assumes heterosexual travellers have found the same thing.

Some pundits argue that customers must take matters into their own hands: shaking cocktails at home, turning up Bluetooth speakers to listen to a virtual DJ on Instagram live, maybe even watching a remote cabaret with friends on Zoom. But virtual customers are useless in Pattaya. Waiters, bar staff and performers – not to mention ancillary staff such as motorbike taxi drivers and street hawkers – depend largely or wholly on tips from real customers carrying a wallet. Hi-tech solutions won’t provide employment. Who wants to watch a digital drag show anyhow?

With foreign tourists to Thailand banned by government decree, all local businesses have to rely on expat business people, foreign retirees and Thai domestic tourism which fills up the beaches and hotels on weekends. The government has issued a list of 22 health and safety precautionary rules for all niteries and insisted on a closing time of midnight. Nobody envies the owners of entertainment spots right now. Challenging stuff no doubt.

The final thought is with Pandora. “In the 1980s, it was widely predicted that the aids pandemic would wipe out all organized gay life forever. It never happened. We will get over this too. In the meantime, wear your mask, keep washing those hands and don’t let anyone into your 1.5 meter space.” She forgot to mention No Flirting.